As the new head of Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families, Walter Smith has joined the organization at an exciting time. This year marks the county’s 225th anniversary, which will be commemorated with a yearlong celebration starting this week.
Smith joined CYF in July after 15 years as the executive director at Family Resources of Pennsylvania. Now he is responsible for overseeing 300 caseworkers and a staff of 515 who are tasked with protecting children from abuse and neglect.
“Some people say ‘I don’t know how you do this work, listening to those stories everyday.’ But what I do is watch children and families grow. When you watch a family grow to a point where they are proudly able to care for their children it’s incredible. What we do is help people grow and change,” Smith said. “In Allegheny County there’s literally hundreds of people who really should be celebrated, who dedicate their life to working with children and families.”
Smith joined DHS as the integrated program initiatives manger in 2012 before he was promoted to his current position as deputy director of CYF. In addition to Smith’s work with Family Resources where he spent 25 years, he also has run a private practice since 1985.
“I’m a family therapist by training. In my practice I spend a lot of time working with families and couples,” Smith said. “My work as a family therapist has been to spend a lot of time observing families and that will directly benefit our new practice model.”
Under the new model, services will also be streamlined to provide a more unified experience for families whose members are receiving more than one service through DHS.
“Allegheny County has often been a model for the country. But we recognize its time to take the next step in innovation,” Smith said. “This move towards integrating services is a big change for us.”
This new model will give families greater input in the services they receive in an effort to strengthen families and maintain the family unit. This is a change from other models where children are often removed from their families.
“What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we not only empower families but that the services they receive are all integrated. What’s happened in the past is that families that had multiple problems, all of their services weren’t working together,” Smith said. “Some people would wonder why would you let the family drive the services, but the best experiences happen when a family is engaged, they actually perform better.”
On Sept. 25, a “Celebration of Milestones” event was held to recognize the 50th anniversary of “the placement of responsibility for child protection under the auspices of the executive branch, separate from the county’s juvenile court system.” The event also celebrated the 75th anniversary of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work offering a child welfare degree specialization.
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